Farmed salmon showing up again in Alaska waters

Posted: Sunday, October 14, 2001

PETERSBURG (AP) -- High numbers of escaped farmed fish are showing up along the coast of British Columbia and a few dozen of the Atlantic salmon have been turned into the Alaska Department of Fish and Game after they were captured in state waters.

Eighty-two Atlantic salmon were found in four Vancouver Island streams this month.

Many of the Atlantic salmon discovered in Southeast have been found by Fish and Game port samplers such as Joe Stratman from Petersburg. Part of his job is to keep an eye out for farmed fish.

''A skipper will come up to us with a strange looking fish. Some of them have seen them before and others haven't,'' Stratman said. ''Then occasionally we'll find them during an off load when we're looking through fish for coded wire tags.''

Biologists don't want Atlantic salmon, which are not native to the Pacific Northwest, swimming among wild species. There's concern about spreading disease.

The biggest fear materialized a couple of years ago when Canadian biologists confirmed that Atlantic salmon have produced offspring in southern British Columbia.

That's something fish farmers said was impossible because the Atlantics were said to be sterile.

Nearly 170 Atlantic salmon were caught in Southeast waters in 1998. This year, only 35 Atlantic salmon have been recovered from Southeast, said Fish and Game research supervisor Glen Oliver.

The numbers don't worry biologists as much as the potential impacts to native stocks.

''They have been breeding successfully in various systems in B.C. We've recovered two of them in the last two years from fresh water systems,'' he said.

One farmed salmon was found in the Doame River last year and another this year in the Situk River. Both rivers are near Yakutat.

''That's a long way from the border,'' Oliver said. ''It's kind of disturbing to get two back to back like that from the Yakutat area.''

Fish farmers of southern British Columbia change the net size in their pens as the Atlantic salmon grow. Oliver said the procedure is reckless.

''Some of the fish don't grow as well. They're called 'non-performers,''' Oliver said. ''When they go with that larger size net, they just put the bigger net around the smaller one and then pull out the smaller net without actually handling any of the fish.''

Smaller fish can fit through the larger net, he said.

''No one has any idea how many get away. But that number probably dwarfs the number that are actually reported as accidental escapes where you have failure of a net itself,'' Oliver said. ''So there's large numbers of more or less deliberately released fish that dwarf the number that are accidentally released.''

Most of the fish found in Southeast waters are about 6 to 8 pounds -- large enough to go to market.

Atlantic salmon go to the Fish and Game office in Ketchikan where Tim Zadina analyzes various parts, including the otolith, part of the salmon's ear.

''We take the gut out, the otolith and a scale sample. The gut tells us if the fish is feeding or not. If it is empty or if it is surviving and going to live. The otolith and the scale sample give us an age. If they're hatchery fish the ring spans on the otolith will be drastically different than a wild fish.''

Most of the fish are surviving on their own body fat, Zadina said.

''The last couple of years, most of the fish that we've found have had an empty gut. They're still fairly fat. A lot of them appear to be recent escapees,'' he said.

Last year the department got quite a few about 10 days after a net pen accidentally released 30,000 Atlantic salmon.

''So within 10 days they showed up here and most had an empty gut,'' he said. ''Out of all the years that we've sampled, rarely do you find any that have been eating. Once in a while one has eaten a herring or candlefish.''

Zadina sends the gut and scale samples to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in British Columbia.

Alaska banned fish farming in 1989.

British Columbia has a moratorium on new farms, a ban that Alaska fishermen fear may be lifted, allowing new farms to be built in northern British Columbia.

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